Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Italy-5 Ireland-30

CONTENDERS

Much has changed in Irish women's rugby since that magnificent Milan mudbath in 2013.  When we took the field that day, a national TV audience was viewing in anticipation of an historic Grand Slam triumph and the 6-3 scoreline was celebrated as fervently as a 30-5 thrashing would have been.

Things were much different for the girls as Niamh Briggs led them out for the first time at the Stadio Mario Lodigliani last Friday.  As well as the new skipper we had key names from recent successes like Fiona Coghlan, Lynne Cantwell and coach Philip Doyle no longer in the picture - but for the 2015 version the expectations were still high.  The remit was clear; to build on that superb slam and final-four World Cup finish.

Well I have to say this was a satisfying start to our Six Nations campaign as we stuck to our task and ran in five tries without ever looking in danger.

That's not to say our performance was flawless; there were knockons here, crooked lineouts there, and Briggs was short of her own high standards from the kicking tee, but none of that counted against us as much as the reluctance of the referee to go to her pocket - the final yellow card tally of one apiece in no way reflected the overall penalty count.

Now I have always been a big fan of Sara Cox the radio personality but as for her rugby-officiating namesake, I was dumbfounded by the amount of red zone penalties the Italians were shipping in the first half without so much as a warning.  At one stage we mauled all the way from the 22 to their try line where the move was halted - how else could it halt but for an infringement?  Referee's decision, scrum to Ireland for forward momentum.

Thankfully we did manage the one try in the first half thanks to a strong finish by Briggs, but with all the territory and possession the game as a contest should really have been out of sight by then.  The Italians did manage a few phases of their own but were normally thwarted by solid defence and jackling from the likes of Ailis Egan.

Finally a couple of minutes into the second half the ref produced a yellow for the Italian prop Cucchiella and straight from the penalty it was Egan herself who got the ball down over the line.  By that stage we were dominant in virtually every aspect of the game, particularly at scrum time when it didn't seem to matter who was doing the feeding, it would come out on our side.

And our consistence was maintained on defence - where the most satisfying showing in my book was by our centre pairing of Jackie Shiels and Jenny Murphy.  The shoes of Davitt and Cantwell were big ones to fill but when it mattered on the night there was nowhere for the Italian offence to go and it ws more often than not thanks to them - and fittingly they combined for try number three as Shiels hacked through after forcing a mistake and Murphy followed it up with pace and precision to dot down.   I also thought Katie Fitzhenry did well off the bench and she has been rewarded with a start against the French at 12.

Our back row wasn't to go unnoticed either and O'Brien and Fitzpatrick added scores of their own in the latter stages to give the scoreline the polish it deserved.  A late yellow card for Katie Norris provided the space for the home side to pull one back towards the end but the 25-point margin was a more than decent start to Tommy Tierney's reign as coach and there will be plenty of positives for him to take forward to the visit of the French to Ashbourne on Friday.

With the World Champions England being shocked by the Welsh on Sunday, this Championship is wide open and from this showing you can be sure this Irish squad have what it takes to be right up there in the thick of it over the coming weeks.  #COYGIG #ShoulderToShoulder JLP

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